Flexible Workplace Arrangements Negatively Impacting Staff, Speakers Warn as Fifth Committee Reviews Projects to Improve Working Conditions, Conference Facilities
Funding Challenges to Maintain Special Court for Sierra Leone Also Discussed
Delegates in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) today considered ongoing projects to improve working conditions and conference facilities at duty stations in New York and Nairobi while addressing the financial needs of the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone.
After considering the findings of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) on the flexible workplace project at New York Headquarters, delegates agreed that the arrangements must be thoroughly planned and not hamper the Secretariat, or employees, as they deliver the Organization’s mandates. Singapore’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said she was concerned that the flexible workplace project did not “demonstrably improve staff productivity and may have negatively contributed to staff health and well-being”.
Echoing that concern, Cuba’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, said the OIOS report indicates that staff have been negatively impacted by noise and a lack of privacy and inadequately enclosed space. The Group is also concerned that the proportion of staff telecommuting or working remotely under flexible or alternate working arrangements has barely decreased, down from 77 to 67 per cent, since April 2022. “We reiterate that the physical presence of the Secretariat staff is fundamental for the work of the Organization and meeting the requirements of Member States as per the UN rules and regulations,” he said.
Patrick Carey, Director of the Division of Administration of the Department of Operational Support, introduced the Secretary-General’s report on the forward-looking assessment of the workplace at Headquarters. Jakub Chmielewski, Vice Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introduced the Advisory Committee’s related report while Fatoumata Ndiaye, Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services, presented the OIOS report that evaluated implementation.
In the first order of business, delegates endorsed the Secretary-General’s request for a $2.97 million subvention in 2024 to support the operations of the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Ethiopia’s delegate, speaking for the African Group, said the Residual Court’s presence in Sierra Leone is “extremely critical and an important support to the country’s criminal justice”. She urged the Secretary-General to seek alternative and sustainable financing arrangements for the Court. “The current funding arrangement is posing serious challenges to the continued sustainability of the Court, threatening the effective implementation of its mandate,” she said.
Cuba’s representative, speaking again for the Group of 77 and China, also supported the Secretary-General’s request for a $2.97 million infusion of capital, which will cover key judicial and non-judicial functions. The Group is also deeply concerned about the Residual Court’s future financing needs. “Indeed, we are particularly worried that since 2015, the Court has not received sufficient voluntary contributions for its activities and therefore had to rely on subventions from the General Assembly,” he said.
Chandramouli Ramanathan, United Nations Controller and Assistant Secretary-General for Programme Planning, Finance and Budget in the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, introduced the Secretary-General’s report on the commitment authority and request for a subvention to the Court. Mr. Chmielewski introduced the Advisory Committee’s related report.
In the second order of business, delegates threw their support behind the ongoing renovation of the conference services facilities at the United Nations Office at Nairobi.
Ethiopia’s delegate, speaking again for the African Group, supported the Secretary-General’s recommendation for the refined option B and welcomed capping the overall proposed cost at $265.66 million, as well as appropriating $11.93 million for the project in 2024. She urged the General Assembly to speedily approve option B to avoid further price escalation.
Cuba’s representative, speaking again for the Group of 77 and China, noted this is the Secretary-General’s fifth progress report and any further delays in a decision by the Fifth Committee is likely to increase the project’s cost over the long-term. “The long-term benefits far outweigh the cost of this project,” he said, adding the work addresses the deteriorating conditions and limited capacity of the conference services facilities in Nairobi.
As host country of the complex, the speaker for Kenya outlined the ongoing infrastructure projects the Kenyan Government is completing to support the facility’s operation. This includes various road and highway projects, water and sanitation schemes and a consistent energy supply. The Government also has streamlined the privileges and immunities administrative process by establishing a Diplomatic Service Centre within the UN complex. Her delegation also supports option B so the Office can meet the expected standards of a United Nations Headquarter duty station. “Successful implementation of this project will serve to contribute to the UN’s broader long-term mission in promoting regional and international cooperation, peace and development,” she said.
Mr. Ramanathan introduced the Secretary-General’s report on the issue while Mr. Chmielewski introduced the Advisory Committee’s related report.
Subvention to Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone
CHANDRAMOULI RAMANATHAN, United Nations Controller and Assistant Secretary-General for Programme Planning, Finance and Budget in the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, introduced the Secretary-General’s “Report on the use of the commitment authority and request for a subvention to the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone” (document A/78/363). The report addresses the use of the commitment authority and Court activities in 2023, the current financial situation and efficiency measures taken by the Residual Court, and contains the request for a subvention in 2024 to let the Court carry out its mandate. The tribunal’s funding situation remains a matter of serious concern for the United Nations, the Government of Sierra Leone, the Court principals and the Oversight Committee. Section VI of the report provides detailed information on the fundraising efforts that have been, and continue to be, undertaken to seek voluntary funding.
These activities include an appeal letter for funding by the Secretary-General to all Member States while the Sierra Leone Government wrote to the African Group of States, he said. Forty-seven fundraising bilateral meetings were held in 2023 and more than 30 additional meetings are envisaged to be conducted virtually by December 2023. Sixty-five participants attended a virtual fundraising diplomatic briefing held in July 2023, organized by the Sierra Leone and Canadian missions. Despite these efforts, no pledges or contributions have been made for the 2024 fiscal year. As a result, the report contains a request by the Secretary-General to the General Assembly to approve a subvention for 2024 of $2.97 million, as a temporary measure to address the current financial situation. Secretariat efforts would continue to seek additional voluntary contributions for the Court.
JAKUB CHMIELEWSKI, Vice-Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introducing the Advisory Committee’s related report (document A/78/7/Add.12), pointed out that voluntary contributions yielded very limited results in 2023. He called on the Secretary-General to intensify fundraising efforts and broaden the Residual Court’s donor base through more innovative approaches as the subvention from the regular budget is a bridging financing mechanism approved to supplement insufficient voluntary contributions. He noted that the Court has repeatedly experienced lower expenditures in its 2022 and 2023 activities when compared to the respective budgets approved by its Oversight Committee. On 2024 travel requirements, a significant portion of the Court’s activities, including fundraising and stakeholder relations, should be undertaken virtually.
On persistent funding challenges, he continued, the General Assembly should request the Secretary-General to redouble his efforts towards additional savings and further cost-efficient administrative services measures to leverage synergies and economies of scale. As for the future financing arrangement for the Residual Court, this matter — being policy related — falls outside the Advisory Committee’s purview. Consequently, and as a bridging financing mechanism to supplement the Court’s resources, the Secretary-General should be authorized to enter commitments not exceeding $2.82 million from 1 January to 31 December 2024.
RICHARD TUR DE LA CONCEPCIÓN (Cuba), speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, said the Group closely watches the Residual Court’s financial situation and notes the Assembly authorized commitments of $2.77 million to supplement its voluntary financial resources in 2023. The Group supports the Secretary-General’s proposal for a 2023 subvention of $2.97 million. He noted the proposed resources will cover key activities related to judicial and non-judicial functions, including: the protection of witnesses and victims; judicial and administrative proceedings; the supervision of the enforcement of sentences; assistance to national authorities and State cooperation; the maintenance of archives and court management; the preservation of the Court’s legacy; and outreach to raise its visibility.
The Group is deeply concerned about the Residual Court’s future financing, he said. “Indeed, we are particularly worried that since 2015, the Court has not received sufficient voluntary contributions for its activities and therefore had to rely on subventions from the General Assembly,” he said. The unpredictable nature of voluntary contributions create serious challenges for the sustainability of the Court’s work and the effective implementation of its mandate. He reiterated the need for a long-term sustainable funding mechanism for the Court.
LEMLEM FISEHA MINALE (Ethiopia), speaking on behalf of the African Group, acknowledged the agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone on the establishment of the Residual Court with its running costs shouldered by voluntary contributions from the international community. While subvention funds of the United Nations and very limited voluntary contributions from Member States continue to fund the tribunal, “the current funding arrangements is posing serious challenges to the continued sustainability of the court, threatening the effective implementation of its mandate,” she said. She highlighted some current key activities of the Residual Court to include supervising and enforcing the sentences of six detainees in Rwanda and the United Kingdom and protecting and supporting victims and witnesses on their medical and welfare needs in line with article 18 of its statute. There are currently 61 active witnesses on this arrangement and 71 in its dormant file, she noted.
Further, the Residual Court supervises the enforcement of sentences, monitoring of conditional early releases and responds to requests for information and evidence from national prosecuting authorities while overseeing the significant efforts towards progress on archives management. She said being the singular entity mandated to carry out the monitoring of its witnesses and the sole custodian of archives, the Court’s presence in Sierra Leone is “extremely critical and an important support to the country’s criminal justice”. She urged the Secretary-General to seek alternative and sustainable financing arrangements for the Residual Court and supports his proposal for the subvention. She also encouraged Member States to make voluntary contributions and ask the Secretary- General to increase efforts to mobilize these contributions including through widening the donor base.
United Nations Office at Nairobi
Mr. RAMANATHAN, United Nations Controller and Assistant Secretary-General for Programme Planning, Finance and Budget in the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, took the floor again to introduce the Secretary-General reports “Addressing the deteriorating conditions and limited capacity of the conference services facilities at the United Nations Office at Nairobi” (documents A/78/382 and Corr.1), which give an update since the last report was issued in September 2022. Significant progress has been made in the planning activities for the design phase, mostly in the areas of governance, recruitment and procurement. The contract for design services was awarded in September 2023 and the independent risk management contract is expected to be awarded in November, while programme management contracts are to be issued in December. The Secretary-General still recommends option B for the project, with a projected maximum overall cost of $265.66 million, as per the previous Secretariat report.
He said option A also remains viable, at an increased maximum overall cost of $235.3 million, as the design works are being undertaken in 2023 on the basis of Option B, as authorized by the Assembly in its resolution 77/263. The timeline for the project also remains unchanged, with project completion scheduled for 2030. The recommended actions by the Assembly are laid out in Section VIII, paragraph 95, of the report.
Mr. CHMIELEWSKI, ACABQ Vice-Chair, introducing the Advisory Committee’s related report (document A/78/7/Add.10), commended organizations within the United Nations system on their interest to relocate some of their operations to Nairobi. The Advisory Committee looks forward to more information on the anticipated overall utilization of the new conference services facilities throughout the life of the project, as well as to related updates in all progress reports. It hopes that “best practices and lessons learned from other United Nations construction projects will be incorporated into the project design, including regarding accessibility, sustainability, net-zero objectives, and the overall energy efficiency strategy,” he said. Referencing the Secretary-General’s report of a 2030 estimated completion date, the Advisory Committee expects the next progress report to highlight options accelerating the project schedule.
He noted the cost increment of option A, pointing out that, in line with paragraph 14 of resolution 77/263 (Section VIII), a decision on the scope of option B, as proposed by the Secretary-General, is a policy matter for the consideration of the General Assembly. The same for the approval of its $265.66 million maximum cost at current rates. On the resources for 2024, the General Assembly should appropriate $11.93 million for the project, comprising $9.84 million under section 33, Construction, alteration, improvement and major maintenance, and $2.1 million under section 29D, United Nations Office in Nairobi of the proposed programme budget for 2024, which would represent a charge against the contingency fund. The Advisory Committee trusts that the Secretary-General and Member States will continue supporting the project and, with other potential donors, obtain voluntary contributions for gaining efficiencies and offsetting the overall cost.
Mr. TUR DE LA CONCEPCIÓN (Cuba), taking the floor again on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, said the ongoing project to address the deteriorating conditions and limited capacity of the conference services facilities in Nairobi is very important. The cost for option B, the preferred option and recommended by the Secretary-General, remains unchanged at $265.66 million. The Group notes that this is the Secretary-General’s fifth progress report and any further delays in a decision by the Fifth Committee is likely to increase the project’s cost over the long-term. “The long-term benefits far outweigh the cost of this project,” he said, adding that other main duty stations have been renovated with substantial financial outlays. He pointed to the $2.6 million spent for the Capital Master Plan and SwF 836.5 million for the Strategic Heritage Plan. It is also important to implement the conference services facilities project in a timely manner. “We are concerned that any further delays will result in additional costs,” he said.
The Group stresses the importance of close coordination between the United Nations Office at Nairobi and the New York Secretariat, particularly the Global Asset Management Policy Service, to ensure proper oversight and governance in all project aspects. Lessons learned from other major construction projects, especially the Capital Master Plan and the Strategic Heritage Plan, should be incorporated. He called on the Nairobi Office to ensure the equitable geographic representation of Member States, as well as gender balance, among its project staff. Any vacancies will provide a concrete opportunity to do so. He recalled that the Assembly, in previous resolutions related to construction projects, emphasized the need to use local capacity, including local knowledge, technology, expertise and materials. He said he hoped that during the design and implementation stages, all efforts will be made to integrate locally sourced and manufactured materials, as well as local labour and expertise.
Ms. MINALE (Ethiopia), speaking again on behalf of the African Group and aligning with herself with the Group of 77 and China, recalled the General Assembly’s endorsement of the commissioning of the design work for the conference services facility under option B and welcomed the progress report, which provides an update on the activities undertaken in governance, recruitment, and procurement, in preparation for the commencement of the design phase of the project. While acknowledging the critical role of effective project governance and oversight as well as the establishment of a project Advisory Board and Steering Committee, the Group wishes to receive updates on the project owner’s view of the advice and guidance of these bodies, she said. With 15 of the approved 20 temporary project management positions filled in a gender friendly and geographically satisfying manner, an update is needed on the outstanding five positions.
She pointed out that the award of an independent risk management contract and programme management contract — for which an update is expected — are still pending and noted the integration of locally sourced and manufactured materials, and use of local labour and expertise. The Group notes the increase in activities at the Office, now higher than pre-pandemic levels, as a result of efforts to attract more intergovernmental meetings. “A mere business case alone should therefore not be the only yard stick to determine the viability of this important project,” she said, adding that without necessary renovation and project expansion, the demand for the Office’s facilities will be negatively impacted. The Group supports the Secretary-General’s recommendation for the refined option B and welcomes capping the overall proposed cost at $265.66 million as well as appropriating $11.93 million for the project in 2024. She urged the General Assembly to speedily approve option B to avoid further price escalations.
NJAMBI KINYUNGU (Kenya) said her delegation highly values the presence of the United Nations Office at Nairobi and wants to ensure that health and safety requirements are met at all international conferences hosted in Kenya. To complement the ongoing capital projects, the Government of Kenya will continue its investments in infrastructure projects supporting the complex. The current scope of work undertaken by the Government includes, but is not limited to, the improvement of road access both to and around the complex; the betterment of water and sanitation infrastructure; maintenance of internet connectivity to users in the complex and surrounding area; and a constant supply of power to the complex and surrounding areas. Most recently, Kenya completed the Nairobi Expressway to the airport at a cost of $600 million and various road projects, including the dualling of United Nations Avenue, which carries an estimated cost of $8 million.
In addition, the Government has streamlined the privileges and immunities administrative process by establishing a Diplomatic Service Centre within the UN complex, she said. The Centre provides services from various agencies, such as the Kenya Revenue Authority, Immigration Services and others. Security has also been enhanced with a dedicated diplomatic police unit. Kenya continues to collaborate closely with Member States, the United Nations and other stakeholders to ensure the UN Office at Nairobi fulfils its mandate effectively. Her delegation reiterates its support for the Secretary General’s recommendation for option B, which provides for modern conference facilities, with an emphasis on sustainability and accessibility. The maximum overall cost of $265.66 million merits Member States’ support so the Office can meet the expected standards of a United Nations Headquarter duty station. “Successful implementation of this project will serve to contribute to the UN’s broader long-term mission in promoting regional and international cooperation, peace and development,” she said.
Assessment of the Workplace at United Nations Headquarters
PATRICK CAREY, Director of the Division of Administration of the Department of Operational Support, introducing the Secretary-General’s report on forward-looking assessment of the workplace at the United Nations Headquarters (document A/78/325) said the assessment incorporates the evolving needs and new work modalities of the Organization and considers lessons from the flexible workplace project and the adaptation of the physical and operational environment occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Underscoring the importance of a suitable physical workspace environment to mandate delivery by the Organization’s personnel, he said 22 floors of the Secretariat Building were reconfigured, accommodating a total of about 3,171 staff and increasing capacity by 1,291 during the project. “The flexibility provided by this conversion has also enabled significant reductions in the commercial office space leased to supplement the capacity within the Headquarters complex itself,” he said.
On the Organization’s real estate portfolio in New York, due account is taken of workforce projections and evolving work patterns, with further efficiencies planned through reducing the current real estate footprint. He said it is critical that the workspace supports current and future work methods and underscored the need to continually observe trends and gather data in order to adjust the physical workplace to the evolving needs of the Organization and its personnel.
Mr. CHMIELEWSKI, ACABQ Vice Chair, took the floor again to introduce the Advisory Committee’s related report (document A/78/7/Add.15), which notes that the Secretary-General’s assessment of the future real estate portfolio at Headquarters envisions the further reduction of leased office space and continued implementation of flexible workplace strategies, along with flexible working arrangements. The Advisory Committee recommends the Secretary-General submit a report, during its eightieth session, on the forward-looking assessment of the portfolio. He said the Advisory Committee would like the report to include information on several issues: namely, the existing and projected workforce requiring accommodation at Headquarters; actual occupancy levels, along with refined projected seat-sharing ratios, as appropriate; the vacation of the Albano and FF Buildings; and further efficiencies, including those related to the planned improved service delivery concept.
Other issues to be assessed include a cost-benefit analysis, conducted within existing resources, of the conversion of the remaining floors of the Secretariat to flexible workplace and rental obligations and the implementation of the flexible workplace at other duty stations, he said. The Advisory Committee also trusts that the Secretary-General will provide the Assembly with an update on negotiations for the new DC-2 building lease and address the issues impacting productivity and well-being identified by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) in its recent evaluation.
FATOUMATA NDIAYE, Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services, presenting the OIOS report on the evaluation of the implementation of a flexible workplace at the United Nations Headquarters (document A/78/225), said the evaluation assessed quantitative and qualitative benefits accrued by the Organization on account of implementing a flexible workplace at its Headquarters. Converting the offices on 22 floors from a conventional to a flexible workspace in the Secretariat created additional capacity and realized significant cost savings on office leases and other operating expenditures while enhancing the Organization’s business continuity and resilience. It also contributed to environmental sustainability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from facilities. However, its implementation “did not demonstrably improve staff productivity and well-being and may have an adverse impact if existing issues relating to noise, lack of privacy, and unavailability of meeting rooms and enclosed space are left unaddressed,” she said.
In this regard, the Department of Operational Support has been advised to determine and implement the optimal occupancy levels in the flexible workplace for operational efficiency, staff productivity, and well-being — an endeavour which requires close collaboration with heads of entities to understand their needs, also taking account of staff’s views and current use of flexible working arrangements. It should also address noise issues and lack of privacy by updating workplace protocols and basic rules as well as modifying physical spaces where necessary and feasible. She noted the Department’s acceptance of these recommendations and that it has already begun action for implementation.
Mr. TUR DE LA CONCEPCIÓN (Cuba) took the floor for a third time on behalf of the Group of 77 and China to discuss workplace issues at Headquarters and said the United Nations has created additional capacity and cost savings on office leases and other operating expenditures with the flexible workplace project. Despite the capacity gained, the OIOS report highlights that the Secretariat building’s physical occupancy has been lower than originally envisioned, even after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Group is worried that the out-of-office presence might be considered a right, or even a rule, when it is not the case, according to the related Secretary-General’s bulletin. The OIOS report shows that since the “next normal” phase for Headquarters became effective in April 2022, the proportion of staff telecommuting or working remotely under flexible or alternate working arrangements has barely decreased from 77 to 67 per cent. “We reiterate that physical presence of the Secretariat staff is fundamental for the work of the Organization and meeting the requirements of Member States as per the UN rules and regulations,” he said.
He recalled that the Assembly, in resolution 77/278, encouraged the Secretary-General to support managers in monitoring staff attendance to ensure the Organization is responsive to Member States and effectively and efficiently assists legislative bodies in carrying out their work and decisions. The Group notes that the OIOS evaluation concluded that the flexible workplace did not demonstrably improve staff productivity and may have negatively contributed to staff health and well-being, due to issues related to noise, lack of privacy and inadequate enclosed space. It also indicated distinct patterns by rank, age and gender, in terms of the experience with the flexible workplace environment. The Group will closely follow discussions on the OIOS recommendations to clearly determine their scope, in light of the current financial situation. The Group also would like information on the reasons that have prevented the Secretary-General from submitting, at this session, the report on system-wide efforts to enhance accessibility for persons with disabilities, he said.
Ms. TAM (Singapore), speaking on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and aligning herself with the Group of 77 and China, said the Organization’s continuous efforts to implement measures for a flexible workplace allowed it to respond and adapt quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stressing that these arrangements must be thoroughly planned, not affecting the effectiveness and efficiency of the Secretariat in delivering its mandates and responding to the needs of Member States, she hoped for the Secretary-General’s report on this issue at the first part of the Fifth Committee’s resumed seventy-eighth session. She welcomed the findings of the OIOS on the flexible workplace project’s enhancement of the Organization’s business continuity, resilience and environmental sustainability, but expressed concern that its implementation did not “demonstrably improve staff productivity and may have negatively contributed to staff health and well-being”. The Secretary-General should address the issues highlighted in the report for a suitable work environment and guaranteed staff well-being. Relevant spaces such as quiet rooms should also be used as originally intended.
On the Organization’s reduced real estate obligations, ASEAN welcomes the increase in office space capacity, associated cost savings and reduced demand for office equipment and materials, she said. It is however surprised that physical occupancy of the Secretariat Building has been below projected levels because “the physical presence of the Secretariat staff is fundamental to the work of the organization and to meet the requirements of Member States, including in-person meetings as the UN returns to normal business”. ASEAN, noting its satisfaction with the decision of the Department of Operational Support to accept the recommendations of OIOS to determine and implement the optimal occupancy levels and the use of flexible working arrangements in the flexible workplace, expects an update from the Department on intended implementable changes.